I wrote an article for the Two Plus Two Magazine some time ago called “Capped Ranges” which was about bluffing to exploit spots in which you can have nut or near-nut hands in your range but you think that your opponent can’t. The examples in that article relied largely upon capping your opponent's range based on his actions on previous streets, but especially in live poker you can often accomplish the same thing using physical and bet sizing tells.
To make the most of these opportunities, you need to put yourself in position – literally and figuratively – to spot these tells and to act on them by representing a sufficiently stronger hand. Several hands I played in the main event of the Borgata Poker Open illustrate this point.
Representing a Thin Value Raise
The tournament began with 30K chips and blinds of 25 and 50, so the first level was tremendously deep and there were a lot of opportunities to use position effectively. Towards the end of the level, a weak and straightforward player opened to 150 in the first position. I called on the button holding 98o, the small blind, a player who seemed to think on a somewhat higher level but still had a lot of predictable tendencies, called, and the big blind folded.
The flop was a 762 rainbow, giving me an open-ended straight draw. My opponents checked to me, I bet 200, and they both called.
The small blind led out with a bet of 500 on an offsuit Q turn. The pre-flop raiser folded, and I called. There's a case for raising here, but as you'll see, I think I can make a better decision about whether to bluff and, if I choose to do so, represent a wider value range by waiting until the river.
The river was a J, and the small blind bet 600 into what was now a pot of 2,100. Based on both the sizing and the way the board came out, I thought this was very clearly a blocking bet. It seemed like the small blind had a decent one pair hand on the flop that he didn't feel comfortable check-raising, somewhere in the neighborhood of A7, so he decided just to call and then lead a relatively safe turn. Thinking he could still be ahead but not wanting to face a big bet, he made a small blocking/thin value bet.
Given that all I did was stab at the flop, whereas he called from out of position, I could much more easily have a Q in my hand. Because he was kind enough to cap his range with the size of his river bet (i.e. I'm confident he would have bet bigger with a hand he perceived to be stronger), I would also be comfortable raising 88 or stronger for value.
The dearth of draws on the board means that I'll rarely have air after calling a turn bet, and given how many hands I can raise for value, I should bluff with all of my busted draws. I raised to 1,600, and he agonized for a while and then folded.
A Thin Value Bet
Blinds were 50 and 100. I opened to 300 with KQo in middle position, and only the big blind called. We both checked an AQ6 rainbow flop.
He checked to me again on an 8 turn, and I bet 200. He was about to fold as I put the chips into the pot and then did a double take when he realized how small my bet was. With a sheepish grin, he put 200 in the pot and then gave me a look that seemed to say, “Whoops, not much of a poker face there, huh?”, indicating that he knew I knew he looked weak.
After all that, it was a lock that I had the best hand. If I tried to milk him with a small bet, he'd probably just fold. Instead, I made like I was trying to take advantage of the weakness that he knew he'd shown me and bet 800. After some pained consideration, he called and mucked when I showed my hand.
“Nice bet,” the kid on my left told me with genuine admiration, and I imagined that he was feeling better about his fold in the hand above.
A Light Four-Bet
Because he was on my immediate left, that kid was among the opponents I studied the most in my first few hours at the table. The most notable thing about his play was that he rarely called, preferring to make small bets and raises with hands that most people would check and call. This is presumably what he was up to in that first hand we played together. He also had the habit, common to so many primarily live players, of correlating the size of his bets to the strength of his hand.
I was on the button when the player on my immediate right open limped for 200. A late position limp is virtually never a strong hand, so I raised to 800 with a pair of 4s. The kid in the small blind, who'd already shown a willingness to re-raise my late position raises, three-bet to 1,800. The original raiser folded, and it was back to me.
I couldn't see the kid making such a small re-raise out of position with a big pair when we both had more than 30K behind. Most players are understandably nervous about playing a one-pair hand post-flop with so much money behind and will raise larger to build a pot and protect their hand. Knowing this player's proclivity for raising medium-strength hands, I thought he'd probably read me correctly as light and could be raising with Broadway cards or medium pocket pairs that he expected to be good but with which he wasn't going to play a big pot.
Well, I was going to make him play a big pot. More specifically, I was going to use my position to leverage the money left in our stacks to threaten a big pot without actually risking too much of my own stack. I made it 3,800, and he quickly called.
This further confirmed my suspicion that he didn't have Kings or Aces. Although this would be a reasonable, possibly even good spot to flat call such hands, it's not how I expected him to play them because of the aforementioned concern about protecting the hand and playing out of position. Most likely he was now just trying to hit a flop and would give up if he missed.
The flop came T73 two-tone, an especially good one for my purposes, though I would have bet any flop. Unless he flopped a set, overpair, or flush draw, I expected to win the pot now. I bet 5,500, and he folded.
If anything, this may been a little too much. Since I didn't plan to barrel many turns, I wanted to make my last bluff a good one that would put sufficient pressure on hands as good as 99 or 88. With less than 8K in the pot, though, 4,800 probably would have done the trick.
No-limit hold 'em, especially when played with deep stacks, is about pressure. When your opponents make the mistake of revealing to you the upper limits of their hand strength, you can push them out by pushing them beyond that limit. Conveniently, you can also value bet all better hands with impunity. The key is to stay alert to all the signs, big and small, that your opponent isn't thrilled about his hand.